It was back in the spring of 1985 that I first met Mary, in Queensway Ice Rink in London, as it happens. Yes, gentle reader, this bulky torso could once glide across the ice like a yeti on rails, however that isn’t really the point of this story. Within a few weeks of meeting we were boyfriend and girlfriend, and we used to meet on a Wednesday afternoon, when she had her half day off. I would sit waiting for her in Leicester Square, watching the road to Leicester Square tube station, whence she would come. One afternoon I was doing just that, looking down the road towards the station when I realized something was wrong with my vision. Everything was perfectly clear, except for the small area right in the centre of whatever I was trying to look at. Now, this is an extremely difficult experience to describe to anyone. It wasn’t as if there was a dark spot or a void, and anything that you could actually see. The whole point was that you knew that you were looking at something, and you knew what you were looking at, but you just couldn’t see it. I suppose the closest thing that I can compare it to is what can happen to your vision momentarily after you’ve been dazzled by a bright light.
I didn’t mention it to Mary at the time, partly because I didn’t mind thinking I was going mad myself so much, but I didn’t want her thinking it. Well, we’d only been going out for a very short time, then. However I happened to ring my mum when I got back to the student hall later that day, and I mentioned it to her. The conversation went something like this: -
ME : D’you think there’s something wrong with me?
MUM : D’you want me to give you a list?
ME : But seriously ?
MUM: But seriously, don’t get excited. You’ve got migraine. It sounds exactly the same as what I get when I have a migraine.
ME: Oh. . . well that’s a relief, I suppose. What can I do about it then?
MUM: Same as me, son. Shut up and put up with it.
Well, maybe it wasn’t those exact same words, but this was the best part of 30 years ago.
This was a strange time for me. The migraines developed so that the blind spot would last for between quarter and half an hour, and then I’d get strobing lights, which would become a swirl of fluctuating colours, not unlike the aurora borealis. Very pretty actually, although you’ll probably appreciate I was never quite in the best frame of mind to appreciate it. The headaches which would accompany this were very unpleasant, but I was never nauseous with it, nor incapacitated for hours at a stretch like my mum would be with hers.Now at the same time as all of this was going on my left arm started going a bit funny. It would start to ache as if I had been strenuously lifting weights, and let me assure you that I certainly hadn’t been strenuously lifting weights, or strenuously doing anything else with it for that matter. As time went on, and Spring wound into Summer, and Summer declined into Autumn, as the weather got colder my whole arm would start going white. Much against my natural inclination I went back home to Ealing and saw one of the GPs at my local practice. The conversation went something like this: -
DOC: What seems to be the trouble old chap?
ME: My arm keeps going white in the cold weather
(DOC Examines arm)
DOC: Hmm, you have Raynaud’s Syndrome.
ME: Really? What does that mean?
DOC: It means your arm goes white in the cold weather.
ME: Oh, OK, fine. What can I do about it, then?
DOC: Shut up and put up with it, son.
Well, OK, again, they might not have been his exact words, but they were certainly the gist. I protested a little , saying that it was actually hurting me when it happened. He replied that no, it didn’t. After a full and frank exchange of views he promised to make an appointment for me with a specialist at Hammersmith Hospital, which shouldn’t take more than 6 months to come about.
Two days later my arm went white, and no amount of rubbing it, or immersing it in warm water would get the circulation going.
I went back to the surgery and threw myself upon the mercy of the receptionist, and pleaded for an appointment with any of the other doctors than the one I had seen before. After about half an hour’s wait another doctor examine me. His first thoughts were that it certainly looked like Raynaud’s Syndrome, but then he started to closely examine my left shoulder and my neck. Then he very gently lifted my left hand onto my right shoulder, asked me not to move it, and within half an hour I was lying on a table in Hammersmith Hospital.
I will try to explain. I like to think that I’m a genetic mutation from a family of mutants. But then I’m not medically trained and I’ve no doubt that many readers could put me right on the truth of this. Please take it in the spirit that it is meant when I say, just this once, please don’t. Allow me some illusions. My condition was caused by a congenital cervical rib. That’s an extra rib growing from the base of the neck, and there’s only about 1 in 500 of us who have it. Unless you’re in my family, that is. My father probably had it his whole life and never knew, my brothers may well have it, and my son definitely has it. I would never have known, but the problem was that somehow it had started to restrict the main blood vessel into my arm, and blood clots had formed in the arm. I’m not asking for sympathy because I got fantastic treatment from the good people at Hammersmith Hospital , with no adverse affects that I know of, and two satisfyingly large scars to boast of. I’ve had fun making up stories to explain to the kids at school how I got the one on my arm. But one of the unexpected results was that although I still got headaches, some of them quite nasty, I never had the visual disturbances again for a good 20 years after my operations.
If we come forward to about three years ago, it would have been a Monday evening, when the whole staff of the school were participating in a Twilight Session. Essentially a twilight session means – DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT LEAVING THE PREMISES BEFORE 6:30. There’s more to it than that, of course, but that will suffice for our purposes. We were working as individual departments, and being The Computer Literate (just about) One, I was typing up some document, when I realized that I couldn’t see the word I was actually typing. Hello, said I, that’s familiar. Welcome back visual disturbances. Now, I’m not plagued by the things, not unless two or three a year counts as a plague. Still, I do know when they are about to come on. I can’t really explain, but there’s a change in the quality of your vision which alerts you that in ten minutes or so you’re going to have trouble.
This happened again last night. Which wouldn’t have mattered that much, but it was my turn to be questionmaster. I started asking the questions at about ten past nine, and by quarter past I could feel it coming on. By the time I was halfway through reading out the questions to round 2, I could barely make out the words to the question I was trying to read. The funny thing was, I could read the question above and the question below the one I was looking at perfectly well. Which meant that I was able to get through the next couple of rounds using a strange technique which involved looking below the question I actually wanted to read. Whether the fact that I was struggling was noticed by the teams I couldn’t tell you. I strobe my way through round 4, and rounds 5 and 6 were aurora fringed. Thankfully the visuals receded during round 7, and I was able to see clearly throughout round 8. Still, I mention all of this since it’s the first time I can remember being taken ill during a stint as Question master. I’ve played in quizzes when I’ve been suffering with colds and flu, but on each occasion I was suffering before I left the house – and for that matter I was still suffering by the time I returned home. Curiously I can remember one occasion during the old Neath League when I played looking and feeling like death warmed up – and played an absolute stormer, far better than I normally did. Still I digress. Last night was the first time I’ve been afflicted while acting as question master, and I suppose that it confirmed me in my view that when you’re the QM , if the show possibly CAN go on, then it must. Of course, that’s just my opinion, and as always, feel free to disagree . . .